Employee engagement, or forced fun? Here’s the difference.

Tell me if this sounds familiar. Someone at your company organizes what they see as a fun, company-wide activity, and it is absolutely not something you are interested in, but you follow through anyway because you don't want to ruffle feathers or disrupt the culture. You might go through the motions, but you do not feel engaged.

Does that mean you're not a cultural fit? Or does it mean you simply have different interests, preferences, or tendencies (ie., extroversion vs. introversion, maybe karaoke gives you anxiety to the point of throwing up, or the thought of an improv class makes you want to climb into a cave and never come back out). 

If your company throws a big, rowdy holiday party and someone leaves early -- or someone doesn't show up at all -- is that OK? Does it mean they aren't engaged? 

Are they hazards to your culture? Or is a truly healthy workplace one that lets people be who they are? 

These are tough questions to answer -- they're subjective, to be sure -- and how you answer them will likely define a significant aspect of your culture. But realize that regardless how you answer, people's participation in activities organized by your company's fun committee is not an accurate indicator of employee engagement. 

In a post called When culture turns into policy on Basecamp's Signal vs. Noise blog, Mig Reyes drew the distinction between between company culture (it does/encourages/empowers) and policy (it says/requires/mandates). 

In an earlier post, Basecamp's CEO Jason Fried also explained that culture isn't something you can force: 

"You don’t create a culture. Culture happens. It’s the by-product of consistent behavior. If you encourage people to share, and you give them the freedom to share, then sharing will be built into your culture. If you reward trust then trust will be built into your culture." 

He emphasizes that real cultures develop over time as the result of action, reaction, and truth when you do the right things for yourself, for your team, and for your customers/clients. 

So back to our opening questions. If you'd like to instate elements of culture in your company, you can invite others to join you. And if you can give them the freedom to join (or not join), you give your culture an honest opportunity to develop.

Just like you can't force fun, you can't force culture

The reason companies instate "fun" activities like pajama days and pizza parties is for the sake of employee engagement and retention purposes. If people don't even like those things, they're not fun, nor do they help with true engagement. 

Now, I'm not saying don't do things to make your workplace more fun. Go ahead and throw the pingpong tournaments, and pie eating contests. But do realize that employee engagement goes way beyond organized activities. 

Employee engagement is about recognition. It's about leadership. It's about taking an interest in your employees as individuals, and understanding their unique motivators, talents, and aspirations. It's about giving them an opportunity to be heard, and then really listening to them, and then putting that information into action. It's about celebrating employee progress, and giving people new opportunities to grow.

That is how you engage an employee. The other stuff? It's just the cherry on top (and not everyone is into maraschinos -- and hopefully that's ok).